‘What crash?’ Your car may tattle on your (very) bad driving

How the new age of connected cars can save your life or send you to jail, or both.

Inside Cathy Bernstein’s car was a sober—but quite talkative—passenger, police say. That passenger was her on-board safety system, and when Bernstein’s car hit a truck, smashed a van, then took off, it called for help, according to law enforcement.

The safety system made an automated call, telling police dispatch that the car was in a crash and to press ‘zero’ to talk to people inside the car.

The dispatcher did.

“The person in the vehicle, Cathy Bernstein, told dispatch there had been no accident, that someone pulled out in front of her and that she was going home. She said she had not been drinking and didn’t know why her vehicle had called for help,” reported WPBF News.

But once again, her car told them why, this time, in person. Officers visited her home and saw her car had extensive front-end damage, paint from the victim’s car, and its airbag had been deployed, according to the WPBF article.

Bernstein ended up in the hospital, and in jail, news organizations reported.

Your car

A number of car makers, including Ford and Toyota, offer emergency call systems. The car may automatically contact emergency response centers if your airbag goes off, if there is a serious rear-end collision, or if your car does an emergency fuel pump shut-off.

Toyota says its system will call a 24/7 response center, which will try to speak with people inside the car, and will notify emergency responders for dispatch.

Ford says it can immediately call 911, giving the details of the crash, and then opens the line for you to talk directly with the emergency response center.

Your privacy

Are you fully aware of what your car will tell other people? It may be time to check your car’s online manual. Or dig even deeper.

“This illustrates, once again, devices in our life that are recording and reporting about the consumer,” said Allen Campbell of Archer Security Group. “Does it infringe on the user’s privacy?”

Campbell suggested that car companies make the information very straightforward and transparent.

“Should there be clear and up-front full disclosure by the manufacturer? Not something buried in the EULA (end user license agreement),” he said.

Life and death

Cars with emergency call systems will be the standard in Europe in 2018, according to the European Commission.

Cars will be able to detect a severe impact, send an emergency call, and deliver information on the car’s location, along with other relevant data.

“All too often we read or heard about fatal traffic accidents where lives could have been saved or injuries lessened if only help had got there quicker,” the GMV Innovating Solutions blog reads. “It is a known fact that 75% of all traffic-accident deaths occur in the so-called “golden hour”, i.e. the first hour after the accident happens.”

Europe’s eCall system could cut down response time by 40 to 50%, according to the Harmonised eCall European Pilot website.

With Ford and other cars in the United States, you can choose to turn it on or off. Ford cars using the SYNC system will show an icon or send you a text message letting you know how the system is set every time your car connects to your phone, the Ford site said.

“Cars that are able to alert a dispatcher that there’s been an accident have the potential to save lives,” said Brandon Workentin of EnergySec. 

“While the privacy-minded side of me would like to see the use of them as optional, in my car, I would leave the feature turned on, not least because I have a teenage driver who drives my vehicles,” he added.

The purity of the data

There is another layer to this use of technology gaining ground around the world.

“In the case where you use technology on site during an accident to assist prosecution later, there are certain protections the public needs to have in place for acquisition and attribution,” said Daniel Lance of Archer Security Group.

Lance said he was brought in to assist with a homicide investigation to retrieve video from an NVR (network video recorder).

“I recorded my methods for the exact retrieval process, and the minutes as I worked on the retrieval, and turned this, and the video collected, into the detectives directly,” he said.

“This did a few things,” he explained. “The public got my years of experience to guarantee the sanctity of the video, and it removed/limited the possible liability of my customer’s (the equipment owner’s) exposure in the legal proceedings with regard to the video.”

Lance said it is important to make sure the information collected through these kinds of technologies is accurate and original.

“Any time we use data to affect the outcome of peoples’ lives, we have to guarantee the absolute purity of it,” he said.

Fake crashes and car-swatting

A cybersecurity expert warns that shady characters may try to use the technology for nefarious purposes, hacking into the system and making cars call in false crashes.

“It’s the equivalent of ‘swatting’ but with a car,” said Patrick Miller of Archer Security Group.

“Swatting” is tricking emergency services into dispatching help or police to a location with a fake report. The name comes from the word SWAT, as in “special weapons and tactics” team. 

“Rival gangs could use this to ‘anonymously’ tip off the police to drugs in a vehicle,” said Miller. “Bullies could use this to harass victims.”

Miller described another possible misuse by unscrupulous people or criminals.

“Someone could cause serious congestion, confusion or diversion by setting off a significant number of crash alerts in a concentrated area such as a freeway or busy downtown intersection, causing many police cars to converge,” he said.

He recommended law enforcement keep these exploitations in mind when they receive information from these kinds of technologies.

“Cars can lie, too. Or, at least, they can be made to lie,” said Miller.